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Sunshine celebration for 20 years of women's priesthood

04 May 2014


Great steps: women priests (and the Archbishop of Canterbury) stand outside St Paul's Cathedral, on Saturday afternoon

Great steps: women priests (and the Archbishop of Canterbury) stand outside St Paul's Cathedral, on Saturday afternoon

AMASSED on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral, they stood smiling and waving in glorious sunshine, as friends, husbands, children and grandchildren strained to spot their own in the Class of 1994.

The twentieth anniversary of the first priesting of women in the Church of England on Saturday was, the Archbishop of Canterbury confirmed, "party time". Around 700 of those ordained in 1994 attended the service at St Paul's, with many arriving after taking part in a walk of witness from Westminster Abbey.

For fifteen minutes, as they processed into the Cathedral through the West doors, the congregation applauded.

"It was a very charged atmosphere," said the Revd Alison Morris, a non-stipendiary minister at St Michael and All Angels', Pelsall, ordained five years ago. "As they entered, they were clapping those who were clapping and affirming them. Some had tears in their eyes."

The service was presided over by Canon Philippa Boardman, Canon Treasurer of St Paul's, assisted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had chosen to serve her. Her introduction of Archbishop Welby as Deacon prompted an affectionate laugh from the congregation. He was, he said, "deeply grateful and immensely privileged".

His sermon reflected the tone of the service - celebratory but wary of complacency. The first hymn, "The Church's one foundation", spoke of a body "sore opprest, by schisms rent asunder", and there were references throughout proceedings to the difficult journey to 1994, and the challenges still ahead.  

There were testimonies from the Dean of Salisbury, the Very Revd June Osborne, and the Revd Kate Boardman, assistant curate at St Mary's, Heworth, Gateshead.

Her ordination in 1994 was "no different from other ordinations", Dean Osborne said. "The challenge was to express Christ's ministry in this world, so what we did in 43 dioceses was utterly familiar. For a very long time the Church has sent out priests and we simply did it again in 1994. Yet what happened that year . . . was also of cosmic significance. Men told us that they recognised a greater fulfilment of ministry in our ordination. Women told us how their sense of dignity and spiritual authority felt validated."

Miss Boardman reminded the congregation of atmosphere prior to 1994. She said that she remembered a sign on the parish noticeboard of the church she had attended as an undergraduate: "This parish plays no part in the apostasy of women". Some laughed, particularly when she admitted that, "truthfully, I had to look up apostasy". But there was silence as she spoke of being "told in public that I imperil the human race by going against nature to be ordained and not staying at home."

There was a note of defiance in her testimony: "Today, I rejoice in being the head that 'tainted' the hands of our Archbishop of Canterbury."

Later, during intercessions, the Archdeacon of Westminster, the Ven. Dr Jane Hedges, prayed for "those who are unable to accept the ministry of women . . . Give us the desire to understand and respect difference."

Archbishop Welby's sermon paid tribute to those who had campaigned for women's ordination. The journey had required "much risk", he said:  "From those women and men who long ago stepped out on a course which seemed unimaginable, their costly grind paving the way for those gathered here to step forward. In our celebrations - and let there be celebration - let us not overlook the cost, the bitterness of disappointment and rejection, the knee-jerk resistance of an institution facing change. . .

"I want to thank those here today whose costly loyalty, whose scars, make this celebration possible, and I want to say personally how I grieve that it cost so much, to apologise for my own part in that hurt."

While emphasising that it was "birthday time, party time!", the Archbishop noted that, "we've got a long way to go. Today is a time of celebration, but never of complacency."

Professor Linda Woodhead, of Lancaster University, told the BBC on Saturday that women generally held "lower-status, lower-paid, lower-power" roles in the Church. The latest ministry statistics show that female clergy account for 24 per cent of full-time stipendiary clergy and 53 per cent of self-supporting ministers. Just 11 per cent of senior clergy are women. There are also fewer younger women being recommended for ordination than young men: in 2012, 71per cent of those under 40 were male.

The mood on Saturday was overwhelmingly jubilant, nevertheless. Among the congregation was the Revd Susan Williams, a non-stipendiary minister at the Grafoe group of churches in Lincoln, ordained in 2007.

She remembered sitting on the floor, watching the vote in 1994: "then, getting up and cheering, and ringing my daughter". The walk of witness on Saturday had been "lovely, very friendly, very joyful, and occasionally people honking their horns".

Miss Morris also recalled watching the vote on television: "It was on a knife-edge, so we felt great anticipation, but preparation for disappointment." Saturday's service had been "well-structured and crafted. . . It touched on those who have gone before us and are no longer with us, and those who might be called in the future. The past, present and future were held in the whole service."

She looked forward to the first woman bishop, but suggested that it must be "the right person, at the time right, in the appropriate place. God will indicate that." 

Read Archbishop Welby's sermon here:  http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/5309/archbishop-justins-sermon-at-service-to-mark-20-years-of-women-priests


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